With a surprisingly small amount of negative press Boris’s bike hire scheme launched last Friday, even the Mirror don’t outright trash the plan. Reading an interview with Boris before the launch he seemed quite realistic about the fact that there would be teething troubles and that it will take a while to get everything working smoothly, so with that in mind limiting it to people who sign up in advance as de-facto beta testers seems an excellent way of doing a gradual roll out. The review in cycling plus compared the bikes reasonably well to their Parisian counter parts. Hearing people on the train say that such a scheme might work well elsewhere but not in London because Brits will just trash them was more a depressing comment on the state of British self perception rather than anything else.
Being a bit of a cyclist I signed up for my key in advance, and took one of the bikes out for a spin the first day they were available. Only a short trip from Victoria to Charing Cross. Armed with the map of docking stations locating the bikes near Victoria didn’t prove much of a challenge – though it would be nice if they had stands actually right next to the major stations rather than a few minutes away though I suspect this would cause a scarcity and congestion problems – so failing that signposts would be nice. Having managed to be literate enough to read the letter that came with my keys and the stickers on the keys telling me I must register them before I could use them I didn’t have any problems getting the bike out of the station.
Put key in slot, wait a bit till light goes green pull bike out (firmly) pull key out adjust saddle off I went.
I didn’t see anyone else using them on my short ride down Victoria Street, along Whitehall and round Trafalgar Square, but I did have the fun experience of slightly peeved looks from people on “proper” bikes as I over took them – I think this may become a new hobby. The bike didn’t handle quite well enough to cycle hands free but just keeping one hand resting lightly on the bars was more than sufficient (I do find the brakes being labelled front and back slightly disturbing – but probably makes sense for the wider range of users). Docking the bike at my destination was equally trouble free push it firmly into place, miss the remarkably speedy green light (this needs to stay lit for longer or beep) – check bike is docked because I’m paranoid and missed the green light -walk away. Journey happily complete.
Now there are quite a few things I didn’t like about the bike, but lend me anyone’s bike and there’ll be things I don’t like about it, I’ve spent hours getting my own bikes just right and I’m still not entirely happy. So allowing for that the bikes are actually quite nice, definitely sturdy machines they are not fleet of foot steeds designed for Le’Tour, but for short journeys across London really can’t complain. I think that really probably sums up the entire experience, the bikes and docking stations seem to meet a decent specification rather neatly, a bit like a “one size fits all t-shirt” it’s never going to look brilliant but it’ll do the job. The bikes are pretty much spot on for low maintenance usable by the vast majority of people short hop city shoppers. The charging scheme along with the penalty fees for losing the bike or keeping it too long will I think prevent the worst excesses of theft and misuse, and if people do take to vandalising them, well Londoners need to do that most strange of things and report it and take a bit of pride in what could be a really useful resource. I won’t be using them everyday probably only about once or twice a month, but for getting from work to a pub to meet friends and not have to worry about getting my own bike home or where to leave it – these things are going to be ideal and fill that annoying transport gap between “can’t be arsed to walk to walk that far” and “the tube will actually be quicker and easier” (So any distance that would take more than 20 minutes to walk but less then 40)
So in summary the good and the bad:
- Good – The seat post has numbered marks, making it much easier to adjust bikes after the first use – this is apparently common in gyms
- Bad – The saddle is a bit wide – but I’m a scrawny streak of nothing and it probably suits more people
- Good – The keys are nice and slim so don’t bulk up your key ring much
- Bad – The keys are nice and slim and so easy to lose in a bag when not attached to a key ring
- Good – Three speed hub gears
- Bad – The lowest gear is really a bit low – but probably works for people that are maybe less fit and encounter a hill
- Good – The charging scheme makes it very cheap for most journeys (The furthest apart docking stations are 8.3 miles distance which would be a fun challenge to try to do in under 30 minutes)
- Good – The penalty costs should prevent too much theft (Though I’m tempted to stump up 300 quid just to be able to take one of them all over the country taking pictures of it – not quite tempted enough but…)
- Good – The info point at docking stations pint to nearest alternate racks and show what’s within 15 minutes
- Bad – The info point maps don’t show where other docking stations are
- Bad – No mobile phone friendly map of the docking stations, I expect someone will make an app for it (and I plan to plot them all into Ovi maps so I’ve got them on my phone)
- Bad – Docking stations aren’t easy to find at your destination unless you’ve checked where they are in advance (Adding signs to nearest docking stations at Tube and rail stops and even on local bus maps would be a really good idea)
- Bad – They don’t have a catchy nick name yet – “Boris’s bikes” as coined by the metro does not count
And that’s probably enough good and bad to be going on with. I think by and large they’ve got the scheme right, and the bikes will turn out to be both popular and a positive addition to the city. Of course both enough vandalism or a massive media frenzy after the first fatality (and there will be one at some point) leading to knee jerk binning of the scheme by the powers that be could both kill it off. But I hope it doesn’t as I’m already considering bike hire adventures with friends and also wondering what a fleet of Guy Fawkes on TFL bikes might look like next November.
Tinfoil hat comment
Of course as all the keys are registered or you’ll have to give credit card details, this does mean that they will be able to track your journey start and end points if you use these bikes.